Tuesday, April 17, 2007

13: Beek

Hotel Atlanta, Nijmegen
other photos:
Leerdam-Buren Photos
Buren-Ochten Photos
Ochten-Wyler Photos
Monday, April 6--

The name, pronounced "bake," means "brook," and there are many beken hereabouts, so many that our hotel annex is on the Waterstraat. Nijmegen was noisy and energetic; Beek is tranquil and relaxed. We deserve it after finishing the Lingepad, which, I figure, throwing in the detours and wrong-ways, added up to about 120 kilometers, that is 75 miles, of walking, in twelve days, with one day off.

We came out here yesterday to finish the walk and found the Hotel 't Spijker just what we wanted for relaxation. A decent kitchen, a fine terrace, internet access, a comfortable bed in a quiet room, and a bathtub, our first in days. Showers are all very well, but the tired walker wants to soak in hot water.

And water is what the town is all about. Beek lies in the municipality of Ubbergen, which stretches along the foot (and to an extent climbs the lower flank) of the ridge that runs from Nijmegen southeasterly for several miles. If you climb a bit into that ridge and look out northeasterly -- and why would you not? -- you see the wide expanse of the Ooijpolder, and beyond it on a clear day (and these are not; the heat brings haze with it) Millingen on the Rhine, with the hills of the Veluwe beyond.

At Millingen the Rhine divides, a small stream leading northwest to form the Nederrijn (later the Lek), most of it continuing through a curve and then west as the Waal. And along the Waal, just west of Millingen, there were huge clay pits. Urban Netherlands is made of brick, and this is where much of that brick was made.

In Beek we visited the VVV, one of the few we've seen on this trip -- I'll get around to that subject one of these days -- nicely installed together with a small village museum in an art-nouveau building (brick, of course) that used to be the municipal power plant. Here we learned about the baksteenenfabrieken, the brick factories; but we didn't want to tax the nice woman who runs the VVV by going too much into the history, and I wonder when the clay-digging began, and how the factories -- or, more likely, the handwork -- was first done, and when.

For brick, I suppose, you need four things: good clay; some kind of binder (straw might do, or horsehair); plenty of water; and a drying-yard of some kind. Of course a convenient means of transportation would help, to send all that brick off to its buyers: and the Waal makes a very convenient highway. If you're not in a hurry you could send all that brick down to Rotterdam without spending a penny on energy.

Once the brick cities are built, and once a sizable middle class is developed -- and that happened early in this country -- another industry develops, also needing tood water and a drying-yard: laundries. And that is what made the town of Beek. Conscious and proud of its history, the town has placed illustrated panels at the sites of many of these washing-places. On them you can read about these brooks, their origins and courses, and you can see reproductions of 19th-century paintings and engravings of the very landscape in front of you.

And scattered along the watercourses are restorations or replicas of the communal washing-basins, long rectangular basins where the washerwomen bent over their washboards, clean water spooling into the basin at one end, spent water spooling out at the other. I suppose the heavy washing was done at one end, the rinsing at the other; and then the laundry was laid on lawns to dry and bleach in the sun.

Across from our hotel stands a life-size bronze of one of these wasservrouwen, a pretty young woman with her hair in a bun, in a floor-length dress and apron, carrying her wicker laundry-basket; and next to her is a fountain; and beyond the pretty little 13th-century Protestant church, and beyond that the rather grander and more recent Roman Catholic one: here around Nijmegen the Catholics outnumber the Protestants. (One reason, perhaps, for the earlier development of good cooking in the restaurants here; and perhaps also for the earlier intrusion of recreational shopping.)

Het Spijker is an old hotel, 250 years old, but the building like many hereabouts dates from after World War II, because this is after all where the last push was, the famous Operation Market Garden.

(Nijmegen itself was badly damaged: American airplanes, needing to dump their bombs on flights apparently turned back from targets deeper into Germany, and mistaking Nijmegen somehow for the nearby Cleve, bombed the city in April 1944, killing 800 citizens and destroying many of the buildings. The great church in Nijmegen was spared, though its tower fell into one aisle, and it took many years to restore.)

I think, though, that the present building respects the footprint and character of the original, judging from photos and paintings of the prewar hotel. There are paintings, drawings, prints and engravings everywhere in this hotel: in the dining room, the breakfast room, the corridors, and the rooms; and they range in style from 19th-century landscape and still life to more modern expressionistic work.

They have one thing in common, says the hotelkeeper: they are all by artists who live (or lived) in the region -- Ubbergen, Beek, Berg en Dal. This is one of those places like Carmel on the California coast and Skagen at the tip of Denmark where painters gravitated, drawn by the natural beauties of the region (human, I suspect, as well as terrain), and where subsequently they inspired one another, and a sense of place developed visibly in the resulting work.

Much of culture grows out of this kind of awareness of place; it responds to the food, climate, feel, scent of place; it differentiates its people from those of other places by instilling an identifiable (if not often explicable or even describable) character in them. And while much tourism these days seems dependent on shopping or leisure, much is also prompted by curiosity about such local culture: local business and government is right to take its history as seriously as the present, and to preserve it and celebrate it; even, these days, to market it.

We left Beek with a bit of sadness. We'll return one day: the Ooijpolder is worth exploration, and the best way to do that would be by bicycle. But we left happily, too, for we were en route to Hans and Anneke in Apeldoorn, and we're curious to see what we do next.

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